Different women, different deaths

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Two women died in the last week continents apart. They had no connection in life beyond ethnicity and culture. One was a much-loved icon of TV drama in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, the other a TV chef in a niche cooking programme that probably few followed in Pakistan. Their deaths got coverage in both print and electronic media. One died in an American hospital of a rare and cruel cancer, the other died, according to some reports, in Turkey.

Obituaries spoke admiringly of both, and in the case of the Pakistani-American chef of her courage as she faced death and her legacy for others similarly stricken by cancer. And here we begin to see the outline of the elephant in the room.

Fatima Ali died of Ewings Sarcoma, a rare cancer. There is no record of what exactly caused the death of Roohi but for most of her life she was plagued by an illness that is never of itself fatal but produces unrelenting misery – schizophrenia. It blighted her career and in the last decade of her life she was resident from time to time in Fountain House in Lahore, one of the very few mental health facilities that can offer appropriate treatment to those that suffer as she did. There is a bitter irony that had she suffered from a cancer there are national facilities that are in some instances the equal of those in the west where many do die in peace and dignity.

And there stands the elephant – mental illness. Even for a high-profile and popular star such as Roohi there was next to nothing by way of a safety net that she could fall into at times of mental ill-health. Illness aside her personal life was run through with tragedy and disaster from failed marriages to the murder of her son to attempts to deprive her of one of her few refuges, her house in Gulberg, Lahore. None of this will have done much to alleviate her core condition, and her ravaged face on the rare occasions when she appeared in public in recent years was testament to the traumas of her life.

Like many of the aggressive cancers schizophrenia is incurable. Its worst effects can be mitigated and there are periods of remission for most of those that have the condition, but it is a life-sentence once the symptoms become plain. Treatment is often primitive, and where visual and auditory hallucinations are present it is by no means uncommon for patients to be referred to local hakeems or quack doctors who have been known to try to exorcise whatever they believed possessed the victim, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Other forms of illness, especially depression and most especially depression in women, are far more common that is recognised. Children are also prone to mental illness and in these pressured hard-driving times staying on par with peers can be a struggle. There is a largely unreported epidemic of self-mutilation among girls in upper schools for instance.

Roohi and Fatima Ali died very different deaths miles apart and seemingly with little in common, and we make no false equivalence. One has already left a legacy that is going to be years long and feed into the growing body of knowledge of cancer. The other has left a memory that will die with the passing of the generation that was her fan-base, and there will be no contribution to the advancement of the understanding of a fearful human condition. Would that it were otherwise. Rest in peace Fatima Ali and Roohi Bano, rest in peace.

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